Property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang is under investigation by the ruling Chinese Communist Party after he apparently penned an article highly critical of President Xi Jinping.
A source in Beijing told RFA that Ren is under investigation by the municipal branch of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), which has far-reaching powers to detain ruling party members pending investigations.
Ren, 69, could be stripped of his Communist Party membership after writing an open letter about Xi's responses to the coronavirus epidemic, the Sino-U.S. trade war and the Taiwan elections.
The source said investigators are handling the letter -- in fact a long and highly critical article -- as an instance of "internal strife" within the ruling party.
Xi was reportedly furious at the article, saying Ren was "incorrigible," the source said.
He then designated Ren's letter as an "act of defiance against me," and sent in a team of prosecutors to set up shop in Ren's Hua Yuan Property Co, the source said.
An employee who answered the phone at Hua Yuan Property declined to comment when contacted by RFA.
"I don't know anything about this," the employee said. "My department doesn't deal with such things."
A second source said Ren had been indiscreet lately in his criticisms of Xi, but that his views are shared by many among the Communist Party's financial and political elite.
The source also said that Ren has expressed similar views to those in the letter, including calling the president a "clown."
"Ren Zhiqiang has been going round telling lots of people that [Xi] is a clown," the source said.
"As for the letter, Ren's points were very reasonable, and all [Xi] can do now is find some kind of financial pretext to charge him with," the source said. "But Ren isn't greedy for money; he's a princeling and he is very well-connected."
"So [Xi] has to consider whether the princelings represent the greater threat," the source said.
A Germany-based current affairs commentator surnamed Fan said Ren's detention could herald a huge split in the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
"This tells us that there is already a huge backlash against Xi Jinping among certain interest groups within the Chinese Communist Party, and they have been bringing about divisions behind the scenes," Fan said.
"People like Ren Zhiqiang have already realized that Xi Jinping is accelerating the demise of the Chinese Communist Party," he said. "This is as far as you can take this model of governance."
"Xi Jinping actions remind one of the Emperor Chongzhen trying to salvage the Ming Dynasty; nothing good can possibly come of this for him," Fan said.
Princeling faction unhappy?
Beijing historian Zhang Lifan also said there are rumors in the capital of a high-level power struggle, as the coronavirus epidemic was widely seen as throwing the legitimacy of Communist Party rule into question.
"Ren Zhiqiang's ideas may represent the views of a considerable number of officials within the system, as well as those of the princeling faction," Zhang said, referring to the wealthy and powerful offspring of elite Communist Party revolutionaries.
"If [Xi] really wants to go after Ren, he needs a pretext ... a lot of people are watching this now."
The letter attributed to Ren doesn't mention Xi by name, but criticizes his policies, including the president's insistence that the media are part of the same family as the ruling party, and must always represent its interests.
"When the media have the same name as the party, it's the people who are left out," the letter, titled says. "The coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan has shown us just how true that is."
The article, titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system," doesn't mention President Xi, but it takes aim at decisions made under his direct command, nonetheless, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.
"The emperor is holding up a piece of cloth, trying to cover up the fact that he is wearing no clothes at all, although his ambition to be a strong leader is naked enough," the article quipped.
"No criticism of the mass assembly of 170,000 people has emerged, and the truth has never been uncovered, nor the cause of the outbreak discovered," the article said.
Ren has been targeted by the CCDI before, for criticizing President Xi Jinping's insistence that the media serve only the Communist Party's agenda.
Xi has ordered China's media to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting", and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity."
Ren was berated by state media in 2016 for causing chaos and for failing to stand up for the party, and for "pursuing Western constitutionalism."
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.